In a world where Christianity has been “the establishment” for centuries, wielding some form of political and social power as either a movement of individuals or as more organized bodies, it is odd to think of Jesus as countercultural. But he was – he hung out with all the wrong people, he said the wrong things, he wasn’t respectable.
In Luke 7:34 Jesus is accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (NIV). Now, the tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying empire oppressing the Jewish people, and often extortionists to boot, and in the very next paragraph a prostitute (one of the “sinners”) spends dinner kissing Jesus’ feet, and these were the people Jesus spent time with, because these were the people he had come to save and the people the culture of the day had let slip through the cracks. When Jesus is called out on the people he associates with, he responds with “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32, NIV). I find this personally challenging, because it’s not something I do as well as I should, but if you want to be countercultural like Jesus, that involves a lot of time with the marginalized people of society, the people everyone else forgets unless they’re hating them, the ones who aren’t like you.
Jesus’ followers had some pretty radical political backgrounds as well – Matthew was a former tax collector, one of the aforementioned collaborators with the Roman empire, while some scholars believe one of the twelve disciples, Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:16), was a member of the radical Jewish independence movement of the time. I would love to be able to sit in on the political debates they must have had while travelling, I expect they would have been spirited. Jesus himself was executed for the crime of treason, claiming to be a king, yet when Pilate pressed him on this issue Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV) – yes, he was (and is) a king, but his Kingdom is a bigger thing than any earthly nation, and it’s his own Kingdom Jesus was most radically political about. Anyone who followed me on Facebook throughout the last election knows I can be as partisan as the next guy (or more so), but being countercultural like Jesus means putting his Kingdom first, and not letting your “red” or “blue” political team get in the way of seeing the redemptive work of that Kingdom done.
It’s easy to make Jesus sound like some sort of arch-liberal hippie – “big on social justice”, “unpopular political views”, “beard and sandals” – but his religious teachings were really more extreme in their conservatism. The righteous were never righteous enough for Jesus; in the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20, NIV), then follows that up with six “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you” pairs where he lays out where the religious laws should be even stricter to meet that standard of surpassing righteousness, finishing with “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). After setting up this exacting standard of righteousness, though, he says “seek first [your heavenly Father’s] kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) and later “seek and you will find” (Matt. 7:7) because “your Father in heaven [gives] good gifts to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11). I think as Christians (and also as a broader culture) we tend to think that God’s righteousness and his grace are opposed, that his righteousness needs to be bent to offer grace, or that his morality acts as a limit on how far grace can go. I think to be countercultural like Jesus, we need to know that our heavenly Father is perfect, that as part of that perfection he gives us gifts of grace, and that our own righteousness is one of those gifts, given freely to all who seek it. Grace and righteousness, far from being opposed to each other, are in fact so inextricably tied together that neither can exist without the other.
As a final note, I’d like to say that the important part of being countercultural like Jesus isn’t being countercultural, it’s being like Jesus. Acts 17:16-34 tells of Paul’s message to the Athenians – the account opens with “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (v.16, NIV). Paul finds himself in an idolatrous, sinful culture, but look at how he starts his message: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” (v. 22) – in this sinful culture, he has found a thread of virtue, and he uses that thread (thin though it is) to lay out an account of God’s history of creation and redemption, and to point his listeners towards the full expression of that virtue of piety in service and obedience to the one true God. Like in ancient Athens, following Jesus should look very different than the surrounding culture, but also like in Athens, we should be able to find aspects of God’s original good design in the people and the culture surrounding us, and I would encourage you to affirm those and to use them to point people towards Jesus, like Paul did.